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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

Cabbage Whites Save Summer!

They're happy little butterflies, but maybe they have a dark side?

Pretty doldrummy around here what with the dog days of summer laying on the baked-out land like hot tar on a sunburnt stomach. There’s a parched sadness in the air; dust devils twirl along the highway. Our lawn is going dormant and although it now requires no maintenance—which is fine by me—the grass is as disturbingly brown and crunchy as KFC chicken coating. Not that I would know.

The gardens of some folks around here are lively and colorful, it’s true. What their secret is, I’m not sure. Maybe because they know what they’re doing. We’ve vowed to take Schiddygarden that direction for sure. It’s just that the gardening learning curve is steeper than we figured. Maybe I shouldn’t blame it on the curve. It’s possible that our learning torque has not been up to the task of climbing the learning curve. We’re not clueless; we're torqueless. Nevertheless, we have big plans for a livelier, more colorful outdoor space. Big plans.

Meanwhile, there’s compensation to be had within our climate-apocalypse summer: the cabbage white butterflies.

Right now these little white fluttering energetic cloud puffs, Pieris rapae, are absolutely bonkers for our small clump of lavender. With most blossoming stuff petering out, the local cabbage whites are drawn to our lavender with a kind of cheery desperation, like last call on a Saturday night. There may be a couple dozen or more at any one moment (butterflies, not last calls, although it’s theoretically possible that a significant number of last calls occur at any one moment), along with a smattering of honeybees, that make for an entertaining and lively kinetic show throughout the sweltering day.

Apparently, however, these lovely little BFs have a dark side. They lay eggs on cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli, and those eggs hatch into hungry larvae appropriately (and not very imaginatively) called "cabbage worms." Although they’re a mild nuisance for the backyard gardener, info on the website of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University notes that cabbage whites can be a scourge for large-scale commercial farming operations. How ironic that our cute-as-a-bug (the very definition!) butterflies would end up being eco-terrorists.

Apparently, there are insect-resistant varieties of cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli (take that, learning curve!) which are helpful in deterring the larvae. But it’s a devil’s equation, isn’t it? Removing the larvae reduces the number of butterflies and proportionally reduces one’s personal garden appreciation. Too bad they don't lay their eggs on lawn weeds, which we have in abundance. The cabbage whites would have an ample supply of hatcheries and their larvae would chew our weeds to nubs. Everybody wins—it's perma-cultural bliss!

Meanwhile, the day comes down like a sledgehammer and the summer of 2021 simmers. Don’t let the heat bug you!

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